Pioneers; Amelia Mary Earhart

By David Hopwood | April 2, 2020

Perhaps most famous for her mysterious disappearance in 1937, Amelia Mary Earhart was born in July 1897 in Kansas, United States.

The elder of two daughters to her parents Samuel and Amy (born Otis) Earhart, the young Amelia and her sister Grace had an unconventional early upbringing and were not raised as ‘nice little girls’.

Earhart saw her first aircraft at the age of 10 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines but was not particularly impressed. Her teens were not happy times, but she successfully graduated from a Chicago high school in 1916 as the US entered the First World War.

Amelia volunteered as a nurse in Toronto but was herself hospitalised during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. In 1920 at Long Beach, California, she went for a ten-minute-ten-dollar joy ride which marked the beginning of her aviation career.

She learned to fly in a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, the standard American military training aircraft of the day, instructed by one of the very few female pilots at the time, Anita Snook. Her first aircraft was a Kinner Airster biplane, she named ‘The Canary’ and in which she achieved a female world altitude record of 14 000ft in 1922. In 1923 she became only the 16th woman to obtain a pilot’s licence in the US.

In the late ’20s, she maintained her interest in aviation and in 1928 was offered a passenger seat in a project to fly across the Atlantic with pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot Louis Gordon. The flight left Newfoundland on 17th June 1928 and 20 hours and 40m minutes later, landed at Pwll, South Wales.

Earhart, Stultz and Gordon received a heroes welcome on return to the States and were received by President Coolidge at the White House. After the welcome, Earhart became a celebrity and conducted lecture tours, endorsed luggage, cigarettes and women’s clothing. In doing so, she earned enough money to pursue her aviation goals, one of which was to promote women’s role in aviation and another—with the equally famous Charles Lindbergh—establishing the first commercial shuttle service between New York and Washington DC. In 1928 Earhart became the first woman to fly across the North American continent and back.

On the morning of 20th May 1932, the 34-year-old Earhart in a Lockheed Vega 5B left Harbour Grace in Newfoundland intending to fly to Paris. After almost 15 hours she landed at Culmore near Derry, Northern Ireland. For this exploit she earned the Legion d’Honneur from France, the Distinguished Flying Cross from the US Congress and the Gold Medal from the National Geographic Society.

Over the period 1930-35 Earhart set seven women’s world speed and distance records, but in doing so recognised the limits of her beloved red Vega and began considering a circumnavigation—and a suitable aircraft. In 1936 she began planning in earnest and later that year, acquired a Lockheed Electra 10E and after a false start in the choice of a navigator, settled on Fred Noonan, previously employed by Pan Am. Noonan was an accomplished navigator and could fly, but like Earhart not equally skilled in radio operation.

The first attempt at the circumnavigation was aborted after a crash on take-off from Hawaii but after repairs to the aircraft, Earhart and Noonan flew from Oakland, California on the 20th May 1937 and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, and Asia, the pair landed at Lae, New Guinea having completed 35 000km of the journey. The next stop was Howland, a tiny island 4 110km away. A US Navy ship, the Itasca was stationed near the island to enable easier navigation, given that at the time, celestial navigation—dead reckoning—was the only means available.

Despite some communications between aircraft and ship, Earhart and Noonan never arrived. The last known transmission was at 08h43 on 2nd July, reporting their assumed position and despite frantic efforts by the Itasca including laying smoke and searches of the area, no trace was found.

Numerous theories have been put forward to explain the disappearance, but the most persistent and obvious is that the aircraft ran out of fuel, crashed in the sea and sank.

There are dozens of honours and memorials, records and examples of popular culture related to Amelia Earhart—perhaps more than any other early aviator. Her glamour, celebrity status and mysterious disappearance all add to the mystique, but her legacy is perhaps best remembered by her contribution to the feminist cause.

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